This is the updated list of projects I’m planning, as they exist in my head right now. It’s really hard to make the transition from pure envisioning and writing to actually making. It’s like a giant turd one puts off releasing in anticipation of the pain and suffering. It only gets worse. Sometimes there is pleasure in pain, but I’d rather have the stuff I think talk to the stuff I make, and vice versa, back and forth, forever.
The real world rarely measures up to the way things are in raw imagery in my head. There is a compromise with real space that is similar to the compromise that happens when a raw work or raw performance is developed and refined– the trade-off is ecstatic rawness for intention and design. It’s very hard to do both, especially in improvisatory performance where the excitement one perceives when it’s known the artist is composing in real-time, the raw decision-making process is very difficult to maintain through the refining and editing process. I’m dragging on… more on those ideas later. Now, onto the ideas:
1) The rat costume. This costume will be used to enact scenarios and behavior in a variety of contexts, from unmitigated street interaction, to composed fairytale, to a series of syllogisms that deal with duality of contemporary rats as perceived by humans, hated vermin or clever pet, etc. This costume is also meant to reference the notion that more mediation is more effective/better– more technology will enhance experience, more immersion will create deeper meaning.
A question: to what extent does the artist/researcher go to understand the subject? In this case, and in the cases of Timothy Treadwell and Barbara Smuts, there are very few boundaries between the studier and the studied. Treadwell’s work with Grizzlies and Smuts’s work with baboons read closer to the work of ethnographers like Napoleon Chagnon, who spent time with the Yanomamo in the Amazon. There is nothing distant or objective about embedded observation/study. In my case I make performances with the intention of someday showing something to someone. The assumption is that building a new skin for myself will enable me to expand the boundaries of my body as it exists in space, to have the rat costume be an extension of my body the way a car or a horse does. Since I cannot shrink myself to the size of the rat to enter their colony, I will present myself to them as the Rat King, largest of them all, to see if I can gain their allegiance. I will present myself to the public and see if I can gain their acceptance. To see as the rat sees, to hear as the rat hears…
I blogged about some technical aspects here and here. These posts deal primarily with how to make the jaw mechanism. I also want to make pan tilt servo systems for the eyes, which will be micro cameras I will use for vision. The video imagery captured by the cameras will be displayed on micro TFT screens in front of my eyes, stereoscopically, and with night vision via IR LEDs. I already built this part of the system last year (see my banner above!) thanks to this Instructibles tutorial. To add to the head portion of the rat costume, I want to make a self-contained hearing/vocalization system with microphones, speakers and headphones. I also intend to make a system by which I can eat and drink through the mouth of the rat head. On the other end of the costume is a tail, possibly operated by servos to make it swish back and forth, and with a hinge at the base to accommodate sitting up, like a tripod. Lastly, I intend to construct an excretory system to allow me to urinate and defecate out while encased in the rat costume. With all my basic bodily functions taken care of, I could conceivably spend weeks in the costume, taking breaks only to recharge batteries (I could sleep at those times), depending on my level of endurance.
Probably one of my influences in this decision comes from artist Oleg Kulik, who spent time as a dog in a gallery in Soho, titled “I Bite America and America Bites Me,” and obvious nod to influential artist, Joseph Beuys, who spent a week with a coyote in a gallery in Soho, titled “I Like America and America Likes Me.” Here’s a video of Beuys talking about it, with clips of the installation (the full film is on view at the MoMA). The skin of my rat costume might be interchangeable depending on which version of rattus norvegicus I want to represent– for example, a “sewer” rat, an albino lab rat, a lilac rex fur fancy rat. The lab rat skin might have chunks missing, open wounds, velcro points for attaching equipment or probes. A transgenic rat could be hairless, or covered in human hair. The fancy rat could have a diamond harness. The very act of skinning the rat costume could be a process incorporated into the “performance”. I’m envisioning a robust wearable object. Another interesting aspect that may end up playing a role is that the well-known Hindu deity of wisdom and intellect, Ganesha, is sometimes transported in the belly of a giant rat, and is usually depicted with rats at his feet. It might be interesting explore that idea further in light of the fact that I’ll be inside a giant rat. Tenuous, maybe.
2) The rat catcher. At the end of March I’ll be participating in the Rodent Academy, a free course offered to “train private pest control professionals, building owners, landlords, restaurant operators.” It’s taught by Robert Corrigan, PhD, a rodentologist who is often called in to solve rodent infestation problems and design campaigns toward rodent control in urban settings. I’ve been granted special dispensation to participate in the class. With this class I intend to create a human persona that I can don, like a pair of coveralls, in order to complete a specific task. The task is to kill a rat and use the body in some sculptural way (maybe a mechanized way). I am unopposed to killing animals in a meaningful or purposeful way. Though I have been in the presence of plenty of dead and dying animals, and have held them as they exhale their life, I have never killed an animal myself, with my hands. Certainly that is a product of growing up in the city, and not killing the meat I eat. My relationship to animals thus far has remained in the realm of pets and veterinary practice. Being able to attribute this act to a different person, a role played by me, I imagine I can offset the feelings of guilt and psychological trauma that come with casting oneself as a killer. There will also be aspects of this prong of the rat project that deal with the Warrior’s Code, which appears in this blog post about the Animals/People mid-term.
Why would I feel guilty or have psychological trauma? Aren’t non-pet rats vermin that nobody cares about? Isn’t there a lot of money spent on effectively killing rats? What’s the big deal?
In my life I’ve had nine pet rats, three from pet stores who most likely would have sold them as snake food, two tiny orphan lab rats from my high school who would have died (we hand raised them on Mother’s Milk), and four left over lab rats who would have been sent away for snake food. My intuition tells me to live and let live. Death saddens me. This is in direct conflict with my lifestyle as a meat eater. I’m interested in this dissonance, but to justify killing a rat for art is very difficult. Finding a rat that’s already dead was more desirable but has it’s disadvantages and relies on chance. Since city rats have few if any natural predators, the pest control professional takes on this role. Casting myself in the role of a pest control professional creates a diametrically opposed relationship between me and the rat. I can excuse the act. What I do with the body has yet to be determined.
3) The documentary. I’m interested in playing with narrative forms as a way to encapsulate the disconnected array of projects I’m instigating, to unify them under one name. Given the fact that I intend to pretend I’m something other than myself, a false documentary about an artist or a person who needs to make the projects above in order to understand his own obsession with rats sounds about right. I’d be playing exaggerated versions of myself. I’m interested in finding sincerity in lies, taking a page from Herzog’s idea of the ecstatic truth, “There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.” When attempting to make a true-to-life documentary account, it is impossible not to inject falsities to a certain degree. It is endemic to the form of cinema– the conscious serial arrangement or exclusion of content in time.
I have seen a lot of documentaries/mockumentaries, but have read little about the form, so these are my assumptions. The difference between a false documentary and a mockumentary is the depth to which the untruth is executed– in a mockumentary the content is not based in true reality, it’s all the made-up characters playing in scripted situations (Christopher Guest is a master of this, as are Ricky Gervais and the American version of The Office). The newer blends of mockumentary include incorporating unsuspecting real people into the story (Andy Kaufman’s I’m From Hollywood, Sasha Baron-Cohen’s work as Borat and Bruno, etc), and these forms blend truth and fiction in such a way that the viewer is aware of the pretense, and the object of humor is realized by exposing taboo opinions of unwitting participants. The teams of John Stuart and Steven Colbert use this technique when interviewing people. A lot happens in editing too. Not to paint myself a particular shade, but the documentary I want to make is something between the work of Andy Kaufman, Herzog’s Grizzly Man, and In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, a true story transposed into the novel form, which is typically associated with fiction. The story is assembled by Capote who acts as a medium, giving voice to events that include central figures, but told from the outside, distantly, despite Capote’s role in the conclusion.
Documentation is a very difficult subject when it comes to performance and time-based art. What is a document of a performance? What is the performance without documentation? I suppose this project falls under the same taxonomy as Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle, rather than the new work of Tino Seghal currently at the Guggenheim. I don’t think I’ll make portraits.